In my story, there are three sixteen year old girls who have all been training in martial arts for a few years. One of them is tiny and underweight, one of them is average size and the other is tall and heavily muscled. How would their fighting styles differ?

This post is going to cover a few different aspects of the martial arts lifestyle to help you with your characters. You can take it or leave it as what works for you. I’m going to assume this ask is non-fantasy. Some of this post is going to relate to different emerging personalities, the realities of teenagers and the physical effects of martial arts training, and some of the truths about trainee retention. I’m going to assume that by a few years, you mean three.

If they’re all training on the same martial art, then their fighting style is going to be mostly the same. What differs is outlook. Let’s talk about that.

(Try to remember these are generalizations before you leap up with the torches.)

First Things First:

If they’re all training on the same martial art and at the same school, then their fighting style is going to be the same. There’s going to be some minute differences in approach, but the martial art molds itself to the body during training. You learn what works best for you. However, it’s not going to be like an anime. Anime choose to differentiate fighting styles among characters for a very specific reason: they need to be visually distinct and visually interesting. Since neither of these are qualities you have to worry about when working with a written format, don’t worry about it.

See, when you don’t know what you’re looking at, it all looks pretty much the same doesn’t it?

The rest is below the cut.

Characters:

The Small One:

You won’t find many martial artists who are underweight.

Physical exertion requires a substantial energy output; your characters will be training 3 to 4 times a week, and working out on the weekends. This is on top of having a body that is growing and changing, one that requires more food already. All three will find they have a substantial need for food, leaning toward a high protein diet. Even if they’re doing no other sports, you won’t find one that’s underweight. This is on top of the muscle gain and muscle weighs more than fat. If the short one is 4”10 and 5”2, she’ll be weighing in around 100 to 120 pounds (she may even get as high as 130 if her martial art involves a lot of weight lifting) and she’ll be stocky like a gymnast. Basically, take whatever the average weight is for her height and tack on 10-15 pounds of muscle.

Like dehydration, malnutrition is a no good, very bad thing for someone who spends a lot of time working out. Fatigue, sluggishness, dizziness, and other difficulties can hamstring performance and endanger the student. If they’re showing signs, especially over prolonged period, their instructor will take them and their parents aside to discuss the issue.

You’re characters will find that they are hungry, often. Keeping snacks in the backpack like Luna Bar or Powerbars isn’t uncommon and they’ll probably carry a water bottle with them or pack their lunch with a gatorade. This is a common symptom for all athletes, so don’t take it too hard. Their body is used to expending a lot of energy and needs a greater intake of food in order to keep up. This is why so many ex-athletes explode in size the minute they stop working out, the body doesn’t need as much food but the cravings remain. Even appetite suppressants like caffeine or other stimulants will only curb it so much.

On small bodies, it shows the quickest as there are only so many places to fit the extra weight. This doesn’t mean fat, it just means a little stocky.

Because of the nature of the training, all three of them are going to develop a similar body type.

Spend a little time watching athletes. Whether it’s runners, MMA fighters, golf professionals, or others, they all share one thing in common: at a quick glance, the people training in them all tend to look similar. This is because different kinds of physical exercise change the shape of the body, you’ll get a little variation but similar body types eventually emerge. It’s the training regimen, really.

It’s something you don’t hear a lot about outside the fitness circuit because most people assume all sports training is the same and has the same result. It’s also what causes a lot of people to freak out when they start working out because you will initially gain weight (muscle), instead of losing it.

The smallest martial artists are usually the most aggressive

They’re also really fast, have an excellent base (they’re difficult to throw or knock over), and a great sense of balance. Sometimes, they have great hand to eye coordination. This is a result of simply having less mass to move and creating less inertia.

Shorter people are used to being treated as powerless and inconsequential. They’re always forced to look up at everyone. Really short folks are often mistaken as children, even offered child menus when they go to restaurants before the server notices they’re an adult. I’ve trained with some really short martial artists and have had a few tiny friends, it happens. Someone who is short is used to having to fight for the respect of people around them, they’re used to thinking of themselves as at a disadvantage against larger opponents (and everyone is larger). On the martial arts floor, this results in taking the initiative, being more outwardly aggressive, moving in first and not giving an inch once you’ve got the fight secured. They go right for the jugular and they go fast because they don’t believe they have the luxury of screwing around. Often, before they really get a grip on using their own natural advantages they may feel like they have to work twice as hard to be just as good.

In sparring, she’s most likely to close the distance quickly. She might lead with her legs, but more likely she’ll rush hands first to break the guard. Once inside the hand range, she can use the closeness to limit her opponent’s movements and options while retaining most of her own. (Suck it reach!) When it comes to throws, she will dominate. Small people who understand how to use their base are better off being close to their opponent, they don’t gain much staying at range. They’re harder to knock over, difficult to pick up, and great at destabilization of larger opponents.

Common traits:

Pride: this person has worked very hard to get where they are and earn respect. Even if they started with natural advantages like natural flexibility and a great sense of balance, it won’t feel like it. Despite an encouraging environment, every step has been a personal battle against their own sense of inadequacy and they’ve earned every bit of it. Of the three, they are most likely to be proudest of their skills and least likely to quit until they’ve achieved their goal (what is that goal? Self-defense? Black belt?).

Determination: Martial arts takes a lot of time and effort, it takes commitment. Of the three, this character might have had the slowest start and felt like the weakest link in the class. These are tough feelings to overcome. Depending on the martial system, three years is a long time and training is beginning to require more time, more commitment.

Projected Aggression: regardless of size, all martial artist in a hard style must learn to project aggression. However, smaller individuals often learn faster than others as it is another form of intimidation that’s separate from size. Simply standing in a corner, she’ll radiate aggression, confidence, and authority. These will all make her come across as larger than she is.

The Jock Mentality: Though of the three, at this age she’ll have what (American) society finds most desirable for women (delicacy, size), this character will also be used to being infantilized, devalued, and disregarded. She is idealized (“wow, you’re so small”, “I could fit you in the palm of my hand”, “I wish I were so tiny”, “how do you stay so thin?”) and desirable, while her thoughts and opinions are ignored. If she’s not content to stay in the spot society has given her, she’ll have fight to be heard and fight to be taken seriously. Most sports but especially combat sports, have an important side effect on the brain: they make you feel powerful. The fill you with the belief you can back it up, that you don’t need to be intimidated by people larger than you.

If she’s lasted three years, then she’ll be at the point where her training is getting hardcore and she’s ready to meet the challenge. Of the three, she’s the one whose life experiences have primed her to be the most hardcore.

The Tall One:

She’s not going to be heavily muscled due to the subcutaneous layer of fat and she won’t be any more heavily muscled than the other two if she doesn’t do anything to earn it. At her age, she is most likely going to be lean, bordering on skinny. With a short body, where the muscle has fewer places to grow, with a tall body the muscle has more room to spread out. Gangly is the term I’d pick, at sixteen she’s still growing into her body and growing into herself. She sticks out in the crowd, is probably taller than most of the guys in her year, and she may feel awkward, even clumsy as her hormones start raging. While she will always have been in a position of power (i.e. intimidating because you have to look up at her) and good at sports, it’s those very qualities which may make her question her own femininity and womanhood. Where the Small One’s insecurities kick in about respect, the Tall One doesn’t really worry about that, she does have problems with being typecast. If she steps outside of sports, she’ll find clothes aren’t made to fit her body type. Makeup may make her feel foolish and she’ll be bombarded with images everyday about how (even though models are 5”10), small, delicate features and tiny bodies are normal while she just keeps growing. The Small One, most likely, doesn’t suffer from a lack of interest from boys (though she may drive them off after opening her mouth). The Tall One may feel like no one likes her and that she isn’t attractive (though this probably isn’t true, it’s just teenage boys are idiots and aren’t likely to admit their less culturally acceptable crushes for fear of being laughed at by their friends).

However, because she is used to being looked up to (literally), this character isn’t going to suffer confidence issues or insecurities in other aspects of her life. She’s used to being noticed. She’s used to being listened to and intimidating shorter individuals (of both genders) into silence.

Expectation versus Reality:

When it comes to most sports, taller people are believed to (and in the beginning do) have a natural advantage over everyone else. They’re expected to take part in sports like volleyball and basketball. Often, when meeting a taller person, the first question someone asks is “what sport do you play?”. They are expected to do a sport and, worse, they’re expected to be good at it. When placed at a crossroads, she may be struggling with continuing martial arts in favor of pursuing a different non-sporty path.

This character may be used to being the best due to her natural advantages, but she’s hitting the stage in her training where things are heating up. More is being asked of her, greater technical proficiency is required. Where things were easy before, now they’re getting tougher. When traditional martial arts move into the higher ranks, they begin to ask for greater technical control and speed over raw power. While she is intimidating and has greater reach, she’s the slowest fighter of the three. Having a large, tall body, she’s going to have to work harder at control her body, she’s going to have to drop deeper into her stances than her friends, all while her body is at it’s most awkward stage. In the beginning, she was good but now she’s behind the rest of the class and the character she’s used to protecting (the Small One) is moving up, and may be turning into the star. The Small One doesn’t need her protection anymore and this may lead the Tall One to feeling a little lost. She may also be getting pressure at school to switch to one of the school sports.

She may not be used to struggle or feelings of inadequacy. It’s something she’ll have to face.

It’s worth remembering that even though tall people are expected to be good at sports, this isn’t necessarily true. Due to her age, her body is growing, shifting, and changing. It’ll be more awkward for her than her friends because she may be going through rapid growth spurts. When that happens, everything about the way she moves suddenly changes. She may have awkward balance and her coordination may suffer if she doesn’t constantly work at it. Martial arts are very reliant on balance, so these are physical challenges she faces daily with each practice. She’ll improve and once she stops growing these will no longer be an issue, but while they are it probably hurts her confidence.

Of the three: most likely to be thinking about quitting.

For fighting style: she’s most likely to lean toward fighting on the defensive. Her tactics and strategy in sparring are going to revolve around keeping her opponent away and at range where they can’t strike at her. The closer she gets to an opponent and the closer an opponent gets to her, the more advantages she cedes to them. If she’s on a martial art with kicks, she’ll probably lead with her legs. If not, then she’ll work at ensuring those extra centimeters of difference in her arms really matter. She may have difficulty fighting in very close quarters because lankiness requires room for the wind up. If she’s on a martial art that includes grappling in the sparring, then, as the tallest girl in the class, she’s most likely to get tossed. (Yeah, if you’re thinking the biggest is best at throwing and grappling while standing, the answer is haha, no.)

Miss Midsize

The problem with being average is that you’re not worth remembering.

Between the really tall friend and the really short one, this character is most likely used to being ignored. If you want to take the height metaphor, they’re middling in all things. Due to being medium in height, they don’t feel the Small One’s intense need to work hard and compete but they also didn’t have the Tall One’s strong and obvious natural advantages at the start of their training. They were average and if they want to be anything other than average; it’s going to be up to them to change.

They’ve never been the most desirable member of the group (for that we have the small one) or the one everyone immediately notices (for that we have the Tall One) and they’re trapped between two interesting characters with very strong personalities. You’re going to have work hard to differentiate their personality from their friends, they might have always had the Tall One to speak for them and stuck as the Small One’s slightly awkward friend. Again, she’ll need to be differentiated from her friends.

Middle characters often suffer this problem. By using the Law of Threes (three sisters, three Fates, three etc), you’re essentially installing a center against two opposing opposites. Pulling from literary tradition, Midsize is the anchor point in the friendship between Small and Tall. She balances them out and this is reflected in her training and fighting style. She doesn’t commit fully to either offense or defense. She tries to do a little bit of both, all the time. However, because she’s the glue, she’s most likely to be overlooked and thus the most likely to want to strike out on her own.

This may result in her outright quitting the school or choosing to go into an aspect of the martial art that’s separate from the other two like teaching, training for tournaments, exhibition, tricking, etc. I suggest digging into the art part of martial arts. A character whose focus is on technical proficiency and beautiful technique, for reference both Jet Li and Jackie Chan are exhibitionist martial artists. So are most of the stunt actors you’ll see in movies. Martial art as performance art, not martial art as combat.

Performing martial artists usually pick up extra extra-curricular activities in: gymnastics and dance to increase their competitive performance.

Dance and gymnastic moves don’t really work in actual fighting, but they are essential to the performance art in competition.

As for fighting style: she’s average, she fights like you’d expect a martial artist from her school to fight. If that’s not an answer, then you need to do more research.

Here are some things you should think about in regards to martial arts schools:

1) Martial arts training represents a serious time commitment.

Martial arts costs: time, money, and (for minors) requires parental support, a lot of parental support. When you’re thinking about martial arts, you have to understand that it’s almost exactly like doing a competitive school sponsored sport. Except, you have to foot the bill for it yourself. This is: car rides to training practices, you can carpool but you’ve got to get there, 3 to 4 times a week in the afternoons or evenings and waking up at 5am so you can make 6am or 7am practices on the weekends.

The kids who most often make it to black belt are the kids whose parents are involved in their lives or who have an instructor take an interest (with an acquiescing parent) to help them make it. These are the kids with parents who support their children, who come to their practices, and become involved in the martial arts school’s community. For minors, any private sports program (by it’s nature) requires a strong support network. This doesn’t have to be family, but it usually is.

Some martial arts schools have paths and programs for low-income families. However, getting to class is often left to the student and, if they have no parent to take them, they’ve got to do it on their own via some other means of transportation. These students, you’ll lose to other factors like part-time jobs which conflict with the training schedule.

The third important point: when dealing with minors, it’s common for martial arts schools in the U.S. to require and push for academic excellence in their students. In order to stay training at the school, they need to maintain a C average or better. My martial arts school ran it’s own variation of the Honor Roll, it had little ceremonies, handed out patches, and celebrated the kids who did well in school. Excellence is a habit to take to all aspects of life, not just technique. Now, I did know instructors who would go the extra mile and tutor or get one of the more academically minded students to tutor a student who was struggling in school.

Time. Energy. Effort. Time, energy, and effort doing something you will receive little to no recognition for outside a very select group of people. Friends outside the school will think it’s cool, but ultimately they won’t care and may not even remember the specifics of the martial art you’re practicing.

The greatest drop off of students occurs within the first three months. The second major drop off is after the increased time commitment of training for black belt. The third is right after completion of the first belt degree. Keep them past that and they’ll most likely be with you until they graduate from high school.

The lowest number of trainees in a martial arts school are usually the older teenagers. Freshman year in high school represents an increased time commitment at school between homework, a social life, and other extracurricular activities. Teenagers represent the gap, they’re a sort of no-man’s land between the kids who’ve been training since they were littles (between five and eight years) and the adult class. The greatest number of teenagers will most likely be in the black belt class and the rest are shuffled in with the evening adult class(es).

Your teens haven’t been training long enough in most systems to make it to black belt, so they’re likely in the middle of a transition. And, from their perspective, this might mean training with the “old” people (which could be embarrassing if they’ve got a crush on one of the teen assistant instructors or an up and comer in the black belt class).

In short, as average suburban teens, they’d be at a crossroads.

2) Martial Arts cost money

$225 a year is a good estimate, but it can be more and will go up as you go up in rank. That’s outside of fees for testing, gear, uniforms, and gas. A martial arts school is a business, not a charity. It has to make money to pay its staff, rent on the building, costs, etc.  So, figure out who in your story is paying for it.

No really.

If you’re a minor, you need parental consent and their signature on the release forms. No, not forged. The instructor and school owner are going to want to meet your parents at least once.

-Michi

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